A previous article outlined the Six Engines of Entrepreneurial Ascent®.  Over the next six articles, each of these engines will be discussed, one by one, and this one deals with the first, Trust.

Warren Buffett recently gave some sound advice on how to hire well: screen for intelligence, energy, and integrity.  In his characteristically terse wit, he added that if you hire someone who has intelligence and energy but is not ethical, you will likely hire a very smart and fast thief.  He might have added that your employees will view you the same way if they see you as smart and ambitious but not trustworthy or ethical.  Why should you care?

Kouzes and Posner in their groundbreaking Leadership Challenge claim that their studies show that trust in their leaders is the single most important ingredient in employees’ job satisfaction, a first cousin of employee engagement.  Without trust present, you can expect a decline in all components of employee engagement.  These include commitment to the mission and objectives of the organization, a sense of urgency, and an intense focus on top quality job accomplishment.

Without trust there is little respect, and the best will leave as soon as they can.  While on the job, they will spend a lot of time looking—over their shoulders for self-protection and outside for better opportunities.  Others who stay and resign themselves to their plight will be the partially engaged or fully disengaged.  (The latter groups on average make up about 70% of the workforce, according to yearly polls by Gallup and Towers Perrin.) Another group that may stay is composed of those who will relish the lack of ethical restraints at the top and thus be a scandal, lawsuit, or criminal indictment waiting to happen.

So what is trust?  One definition from Webster is an “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone…”  To see if you merit trust, ask yourself the following tough questions:

  • Can your co-workers have confidence that you will keep your word and that you mean what you say? Entrepreneurs can have a tendency to over-promise when they are hiring or when incentivizing someone valuable to stay.  The promise may even be sincere at the time.  Later on “things change,” and the person who insists on what is his or her due is sometimes seen as “inflexible” and “not open to change.”  What they will change is the degree of trust placed in the person who made the original promise.


  • Do your team members believe you will have their back—that you will stand up for risk-takers, innovation and break-throughs? It is easy to cheer for winners, but there is an adage that if you never fail you are not taking enough risks.  Success requires that you allow if not encourage risk-taking.  Having your team member’s backs, then, often includes forgiveness and humor, two qualities infrequently mentioned in leadership contexts.  These qualities were recently exhibited by Elon Musk of SpaceX after the explosion of a rocket booster which his team failed to land and recover intact after flight.  His response?  It didn’t crash.  It was just underwent a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”  Musk and his team of bold upstarts are now the new pace-setters for the space exploration industry.


  • Do your team members believe that you have sound judgment and do not make rash, uninformed decisions?  Few would volunteer for a position in Captain Bligh’s crew in Mutiny on the Bounty, whichever movie version you prefer.  The historical and tyrannical Bligh was, it turns out, a superior navigator of considerable courage; he did after all reach a safe port 3,600 miles away with 18 loyalists 47 days after being put to sea in a small launch by the mutineers.  Survival and technical skills and guts will not, however, make up for showing callousness and tunnel vision instead of discipline and commitment.   As one CEO lamented to me recently of an executive on his team, “he has the emotional intelligence of a rhinoceros.  If anyone upsets him, he instinctively charges!”


  • Do team members trust that you understand the employee’s situation? Plans, orders, or instructions issued from leaders seen as insulated from reality will be carried out only with reluctance, and the support you offer will often seem token or irrelevant. Have you done the kind of work you are asking others to do?   This principle is so highly valued by the U.S. Marine Corps that they are the only branch of the military that requires that their highly-trained aviators also undergo grueling, infantry command training.   The bond of common suffering and experience that this creates is seen as essential to melding ground troops and air support into one formidable unit instead of two units operating less effectively in parallel.  How do you demonstrate to your team that you are in some sense one with them?


  • Does your team have confidence that you will remain cool under pressure? Crises, emergencies, set-backs, and threats to continued existence are par for the course in life and business.  Sometimes they are beyond our control or capacity to foresee.  We can control are our responses.  Do you tend to turn crises into opportunities or into disasters?  SpaceX has had its share of explosions on the launch pad; Apple and Microsoft have had product failures.  Amazon went years without a penny of profit.  Countless financial services institutions have felt under assault from regulators since the 2008 economic crisis. Calm, confident leadership has carried through the survivors and thrivers.  Where does the sense of calm come from?  For many leaders, it comes from a profound sense of purpose and a faith that they are involved in something much deeper than themselves and the setbacks of the moment.  Acting from this “centeredness” requires regular or extensive reflection on what is most important in life and what your role is in the whole human drama.  If you neglect doing this introspective work, your company may be seen as a powerful vessel, but as one without a rudder or compass.  At worst, you may be seen as panic-prone, easily hooked by uncontrolled fear that worsens the dangers.


Finally, to return to Buffett’s hiring criteria of energy, intelligence, and integrity—in the Feb. 13, 2018 edition of Inc., Marcel Schwantes suggests a dozen interview questions to test the ethical character and integrity of applicants.  For brevity, here are six:

  1. Tell me about a time when you experienced a loss for doing what is right. How did you
  2. Tell me about a time when your trustworthiness was challenged.  How did you react/respond?
  3. Tell me about a specific time when you had to handle a tough problem which challenged fairness or ethical issues.
  4. When was the last time you “broke the rules”? What was the situation and what did you do?
  5. Describe a situation where you saw an employee or co‐worker do something you thought was inappropriate. What did you do?
  6. What would your past manager say made you most valuable to them? (Besides intelligence, energy or technical and hard skills, listen for clues that point to integrity.)

During job interviews, applicants are in a sense “hiring a boss” just as much as you are hiring an employee.  With this in mind, I suggest the following thought experiment:  Imagine the applicant you are interviewing, when it is his or her turn, asking you the above questions.  How would you respond?  If you are not satisfied with your imagined answers, then ask yourself, what do you need to change so that your current team will have trust and confidence in your ethics and integrity?   Remember, as you work to establish trust the worst thing would be for your team, to use Buffett’s provocative phrasing, to see you as a very smart and fast thief.

For the rest of the questions suggested by Schwantes, go to